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You Say Expresso, I Say Espresso …

I know, enough already about Weird Al Yankovic’s “Word Crimes,” but bear with me for one more comment on the music video that’s given language prescriptivism it’s its biggest shot in the arm since the glory days of Eats, Shoots & Leaves. Perhaps the weirdest of the 17 admonitions Weird Al crams into the song comes at about the halfway point, when he croons, “There’s no x in espresso,” over this image:

weird-al-yankovik

“Weirdest” because, compared with less-fewer, literally, could care less, and Weird Al’s othe…

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Boom. No, BOOM!

“Whenever I make a really bad joke,” Kaitlin Thomas wrote in TV.com on May 15, “I like to punch it up at the end by yelling, ‘Boom!’ It always makes me feel better, as if I’m my own one-woman self-confidence boost.”

TNT seems to have noticed booms like hers. May 15 was the day that network announced a rebranding from “We Know Drama” and plain “Drama” to “TNT Drama: Boom.” Here’s the official explanation:

“TNT’s marketing team chose ‘Boom’ not only for the ways in which it can be applied to d…

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Agree to Disagree

Robert W. Service was right.

Robert W. Service was right.

The emails come like clockwork, one or two every week. Sometimes they’re abusive, sometimes they’re  gleefully “gotcha,” and sometimes they’re civil and sincere, like this one (name of sender withheld):

I genuinely read and appreciate your articles, but this one stumped me. This sentence is near the end of your article in The Week,  published 14 March 2013: “As I noted in my previous article, the meaning of words inevitably and perennially change.”  If I was working…

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When a Dude Is Not a ‘Dude’

Two weeks ago I triumphantly reported the apparent discovery of the Ur-dude, the original invention back in 1883 of the now-familiar word dude. Etymologists had previously known about Robert Sale Hill’s poem in the New York World of January 14, 1883, the one I republished in my post, but there had been several other apparent earlier instances. The news, reported in articles by Peter Reitan in the May 2014 issue of Gerald Cohen’s Comments on Etymology, was that the last of three supposed earlier …

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Valid Pronoun-Ambiguity Warnings

Dogmatic opponents of using they  with singular antecedents don’t argue for its wrongness; they simply assert. William Strunk called it a “common inaccuracy” 96 years ago; the revised version by E.B. White never revised this; and journalist Simon Heffer opines without argument in Strictly English (2010) that singular they is “abominable.”

Rebecca Gowers, in her revised update of her great-grandfather’s classic usage book Plain Words, is different. Exhibiting a sharp eye for ill-chosen pronouns, …

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Word Pardons

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Image by Jarrett Heather

Weird Al’s “Word Crimes” video now has close to nine million hits, with the thumbs-up outweighing the thumbs-down more than 100 to 1. For those who take debates over prescriptivism in language usage seriously, there’s plenty of material for hand-wringing in the video, as evidenced by Lauren Squires’s perceptive piece in Language Log. But since there probably aren’t nine million people who have heard of prescriptivism in language, I wonder if there isn’t something els…

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Switchin’ It Up

Linguists sometimes get discouraged about the rampant prescriptivism in public discussions of language. This past week was no exception, as many of us watched with some dismay as both friends and strangers online delighted over Weird Al Yankovich’s new song “Word Crimes.” As this song showed yet again, it can take only the smallest spark to ignite a stream of invective about “abuses” in/to the language and about those who commit these perceived abuses.

There’s much to say about the attitudes a…

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The Pursuit of Happiness—?

dec-indep-topDebates about punctuation, for me, are like debates about rests and accidentals in musical scores. They go on and on; if the manuscript is old enough, they can be decided by a coin flip; and they force us, in the end, to consider the work as a whole—its shape, its construction and intent. Mozart’s scores, for instance, several of which were left in disarray on the composer’s death, come in for a fair share of controversy. In his Piano Concerto No. 13, is the complex figured bass in the tut…

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The Etiology of Turgid Drivel

On July 10, chief executive Satya Nadella sent all Microsoft employees an inspirational memo (a prelude to sweeping layoffs, of course). The business sections and technology blogs were inspired to come down on it like a ton of bricks. I’ve struggled through it, and I have to say it deserves its damning reviews. The writing is truly dire. Look at this astonishing 10-sentence episode of verbal flatulence:

Organizations will change. Mergers and acquisitions will occur. Job responsibilities will evo…

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When Is a Novel Not a Novel?

I was taken aback recently to pick up an (unnamed) magazine for which I’d written an article and see my brief bio begin with the words: “Ben Yagoda is a novelist. … ” I am not a novelist, never have been, and have not (since the age of 15) even had any aspirations in that direction. This isn’t because I have any disdain for the form but rather the opposite. Loudon Wainwright III sings in “Talkin’ New Bob Dylan Blues” that he held off writing songs as a youth because of the mere presence of  Dyl…